Friday, November 28, 2008

My Black Friday splurge

P.D. James, that illustrious and industrious crime novelist, has made a liar of me.

Three years ago, in one of my last acts as book review editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, I wrote about her Adam Dalgliesh mystery The Lighthouse that "the final pages are unsettlingly elegiac, as if Lady James were at last saying goodbye to her beloved commander." At the time, James was 85 years old, and it was more than reasonable to conclude that she was wrapping up her career as the finest mystery writer of the postwar era.

Without her, I wrote, "the lover of the literary whodunit would be lost in a desert of bang-bang, boink-boink."

She is not everyone's cup of tea. Many readers, spoiled by modern pell-mell plotting and quick, shallow characterization, don't care for the deep detail and careful setting with which she clothes her crimes. They haven't the patience to read slowly and study the tiny clues threaded through her highly intellectual narratives. Pity, for every one of those exquisite details counts -- and, when they finally come together, always result in a deeply satisfying windup.

Now James is 88 and she's still going strong, like the recently departed Studs Terkel, who kept on writing well into his 90s. Those two shame less productive but not quite so elderly geezer-writers like me.

Nope, The Lighthouse wasn't the last Adam Dalgliesh novel. Whether she had it hidden up her sleeve all this time or changed her mind about saying farewell to her hero, I don't know. But she had still another coming.

This week she published The Private Patient (Knopf, $25.95). In this 14th outing, Commander Dalgliesh investigates the murder of a journalist at a private plastic surgery clinic.

Today I'm off to brave the Black Friday crowds at the local Barnes & Noble to buy it, and before long I'll report back on my investigation.

[LATER: Scored a copy of The Private Patient this morning for 70 per cent off the jacket price -- the standard 30 percent cut for a new popular novel plus a 40 per cent Internet coupon. If my B&N membership hadn't run out earlier this year, I'd have saved an additional 10 per cent. Incidentally, the local B&N was almost empty at 9:15 a.m. despite the Black Friday discounts; it took me five minutes to find the book and deal with the single clerk on duty. Times may be even harder than we thought if readers aren't patronizing bookstores.]

Thursday, November 27, 2008

This wasn't what I meant, but . . .

A friend, knowing my interest in the captioning (or subtitling) of streaming video, sent me the link to this recent YouTube music video. I have no idea what language the audio is in, but the subtitles seem to have been strained through a German-to-Russian dictionary, and then Russian-to-English. Or something.

Warning: Some of the "translated" lyrics are more than linguistically questionable.

Tinkering, tinkering . . .

With my web site, that is. Yesterday I suffered an unaccustomed attack of ambition and redid part of the home page of so that it emphasized the mystery novels rather than the entire lineup of books. Simpler and sleeker, maybe.

Now, a favor, please: Would you go to the site and have a look? If anything seems amiss -- if stuff doesn't line up squarely, for example -- please let me know, either in a comment below or e-mail. Please specify the browser you are using and whether you are on a PC or Mac.

Thanks, and Merry Thanksgiving. Slap another ladleful of gravy on your mashed potatoes and don't be niggardly with the cranberry sauce.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

When good writers commit bad sex

"JM's hands are caressing my breasts, now, and I am allowed to kiss him back, but not for long, for he breaks off, to give each breast the attention it deserves. As he nibbles and pulls with his mouth, his hands find my bush, and with light fingers he flutters about there, as if he is a moth caught inside a lampshade.

"Almost screaming after five agonizingly pleasurable minutes, I make a grab, to put him, now angrily slapping against both our bellies, inside, but he holds both by arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as not to miss a single drop. I find myself gripping his ears and tugging at the locks curling over them, beside myself, and a strange animal noise escapes from me as the mounting, Wagnerian crescendo overtakes me. I really do hope at this point that all the Spodders are, as requested, attending the meeting about slug clearance or whatever it is."

And there she is, the winner of the Literary Review Bad Sex Award for 2008: the British novelist Rachel Johnson, for Shire Hell. She is the 16th victor in the competition, established by the British critic and novelist Auberon Waugh to discourage literary lions from committing, well, bad sex in their work.

Johnson is in good company. Such luminaries as Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Sebastian Faulks have won the award. And at the ceremony in London last night, John Updike was bestowed a lifetime achievement award, having been nominated four times for the top prize, including this year for The Widows of Eastwick. A sample:

"She said nothing then, her lovely mouth otherwise engaged, until he came, all over her face. She had gagged, and moved him outside her lips, rubbing his spurting glans across her cheeks and chin," he writes. "God, she was antique, but here they were. Her face gleamed with his jism in the spotty light of the motel room, there on the far end of East Beach, within sound of the sea."

Other passages from novels short-listed for the 2008 awards can be found here.
Viewer discretion is highly recommended.

It's enough to drive a writer to dump all his stock in Pfizer (maker of Viagra).

[With thanks to for the tip.]

Monday, November 24, 2008

Hard times for writers, too

A bit of a bombshell exploded in the publishing world today: the venerable house of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has stopped acquiring new manuscripts for an undetermined period. Presumably it will go ahead and publish the new books it already has in its pipeline -- it produces 400 fresh titles a year -- but that'll be all for a while.

For the last few months the publishing industry has been fretting about constantly declining book sales, and, like other retailers, bookstores are expecting a very, very poor holiday harvest this year. It stands to reason that publishers would be forced to cut back the numbers of manuscripts they accept, offer much lower advances against royalties, and print far fewer copies, hoping to sell through a modest first printing rather than having to accept large numbers of returns to be dumped on the remainder market -- or pulped.

"It seems tougher and tougher to make sales," said a literary agent I know. "We've definitely noticed a change since the fall. First, MacAdams/Cage stopped acquiring and now HMH is putting a freeze on their acquisitions as well. That being said, HMH is such a well-established house that we are hopeful that they will bounce back. It seems to us that in these hard economic times, people would want to curl up with a good book."

The cutbacks may be the harbinger of a long, long drought for "midlist" writers, those whose books sell in middling numbers. If other publishers follow suit, writers are going to have to find other jobs, if there are other jobs to find -- or try to live on what remains of their pensions and 401Ks.

It's not going to be easy to win new book contracts with publishers on the basis of a couple of chapters and an outline. More and more authors will have to submit entire manuscripts in order to get their projects considered, and it'll be a brave and dedicated (and maybe foolhardy) writer who'll go to this length. And God help him if his offering is a "niche" book -- most publishers, increasingly ruled by the blockbuster mentality, are likely to take only new works they think will bring large piles of revenue.

This contretemps has been a long time in the making; it's not just collateral damage from the financial crisis. For years more and more new titles have been chasing fewer and fewer readers. Increasingly the printed book, like the printed newspaper, appears to be an obsolete business model whose audience is simultaneously aging and shrinking.

When this mess is over, the publishing world will have changed immensely. Text will still be delivered, but the chief means of delivery is likely to be much less costly than the printed and bound book sold in stores. I'll go out on a not very shaky limb and predict that in five to ten years the majority of books will be sold in electronic form and read on Kindles and their kith. (Right now only about 1 per cent of books appear first in e-book form, but the number tripled this year.)

I'll also predict that there will be far, far fewer authors who can make a living at full-time writing. Already most of us, at least the lucky ones, have day jobs.

How are we going to make it? Maybe we will need a new Federal Writers' Project, the Depression scheme that employed large numbers of starving authors in the 1930s.

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Now this is how it should be done

Barack Obama's website is now captioning the streaming YouTube video of the president-elect's weekly fireside chats. Here's yesterday's address on the economy:

To get the captions, start the video rolling. If the captions don't appear immediately, click the "up arrow" at the right side of the screen, then the "CC" symbol. You'll see the transcript, word for word as Obama speaks, at the bottom of the screen. (You could teach yourself how to read lips by turning off the sound, then glance at the captions as you focus on Obama's face.)

Now why can't the American news organizations do this with their streaming videos? There are a lot of hearing-impaired and deaf people in this country -- perhaps 20 million of us -- and regular captioning would attract a lot of new business to a news web site. Besides, goddam it, it would be the right thing to do.

(With thanks to Tina Davidson for the heads-up.)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Two days in a railfan's heaven

Here's a selection of photos from last week's visit to the rail buff's shrine at La Plata, Mo. Click on each photo for a slightly larger version. (See the Nov. 20 blogpost below for the story of my trip.)

A handcar and other railroad implements greet guests at the front door of the Depot Inn. Train stuff of all kinds is scattered around the property.

Inside, the check-in desk looks like a railroad station ticket office.

There's enough reading material in the lobby to please the most dedicated railfan, and an old-fashioned pool table as well.

The wall separating the breakfast area from the pool features a huge, detailed model train that bears close study.

This stained glass Super Chief in one window gives the place almost a religious ambience for rail buffs.

There's no dearth of rail memorabilia, even in the hotel's swimming pool.

The pool is refilled from a replica of an old steam locomotive water spout at upper left.

The amenities of the Pullman Suite, where I stayed, include a fireplace and a big flat-screen television . . .

. . . and a jacuzzi big enough for two.

The long corridor to the standard bedrooms features rail memorabilia . . .

. . . including dozens of signal lanterns from a variety of railroads . . .

. . . and, of course, model trains of all makes and sizes.

The old Santa Fe Ry. station at La Plata is a photographer's paradise.

Art Deco ambience marks the station's interior.

Where's the train? When is it going to get here?

A remarkably large contingent of passengers from a small town greets the eastbound Southwest Chief.

The polite and patient Amish were the last to board the train.

Above the tracks near the station lies an enclosed, heated railfan's lookout, complete with His and Hers outhouses to the left.

On the short path from the hotel to the lookout lies an old roadside memory for railfans of a certain age.

The lookout itself is modest but snug and warm, with tables and chairs inside. The antenna beams continuous video of passing trains to all the TV sets at the Depot Inn.

During two and a half hours at the lookout, only one freight train came by, appearing so quickly that I was able to get only one photograph. That was the only disappointment of the trip. (The building across the tracks hosts and its sister operation,

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Choo-choo to the boonies

Ah, that was a lovely trip to the middle of nowhere earlier this week. And it may at long last have restarted the writing of my fourth novel, Hang Fire, after way too many months of writer's block, or maybe that was just sheer laziness.

Yesterday afternoon I spent three hours writing a new chapter at white heat – a term I use advisedly, for the passage is based on the actual conflagration that consumed a goodly portion of downtown Ontonagon, Michigan, last Labor Day. No one was killed in that blaze, but in the novel (of course!) a well-roasted body is found in the ruins – and the medical examiner fixes the time of death as 24 to 48 hours before the fire began. Is there a connection? I don't know yet, but I'm having a grand old time helping Sheriff Steve Martinez find out.

And, of course, the “middle of nowhere” – with apologies to those who live in rural northeast Missouri – is a small Plains town called La Plata, population just under 1,500, lying on the old Santa Fe main line (now Burlington Northern Santa Fe) from Los Angeles to Chicago. I arrived here Tuesday evening after a 5-hour trip aboard Amtrak No. 3, the Southwest Chief, from Chicago. The big attraction was a hotel near the station called the Depot Inn and Suites, a two-year-old establishment devoted to the memorabilia of railroading, and since I am an unreconstructed rail buff . . .

The hotel is everything it is advertised to be. It teems with choo-choo objects both inside and out: handcars, freight wagons, tools, documents, photographs, models, books, magazines. It has more railroad stuff than the storied Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, Montana. The Depot Inn's luxury suites (I stayed in the Pullman Suite) are splendidly appointed. The staff is warm and friendly. The Amtrak memorabilia in the old express freight cars parked on rails in the back took me back to the 1970s, when the new national passenger railroad was formed from the ragtag remnants of the old luxury limiteds.

I had a good time photographing the activity at the La Plata station Wednesday morning as No. 4 came in, bound for Chicago. Even though it needs a coat of paint inside and out, the place retains the Art Deco ambience of the Santa Fe Ry. depot it once was, and yesterday it hosted some 35 or 40 passengers waiting to board the eastbound Chief. About half were boisterous Truman College students, and a few were quiet Amish.

Near the station lies the building hosting, the Internet's most popular railfan site, and, a remarkably large and busy mail-order operation devoted to children's party supplies with a railroad theme. I enjoyed a tour through the cavernous warehouse full of items from railroady pinatas to Thomas the Tank Engine wares. There's a lot of Amtrak-oriented stuff, too – the national railroad is generous with licensing its images, unlike some of the greedier freight lines.

Right across the tracks, on a low bluff, sits the Chris Guenzler Million Mile Lookout. It's a heated cabin only about a quarter of a mile along a graveled path from the hotel, and there are his-and-hers outhouses, complete with funky odor, for those who want to tarry a while and watch trains. Visitors autograph the interior planking of the lookout (one sign warns: “FEEL FREE TO SIGN YOUR NAME, BUT GRAPHITE WILL NOT BE TOLERATED”). Guenzler, by the way, is perhaps the nation's most ambitious rail rider, having racked up well over a million official miles on the high iron.

I was mildly disappointed only by the lack of freight trains roaring by the lookout. Just one train went by during the 2 ½ hours I spent there, not very conducive to railroad photography. The desk clerk at the hotel thought construction along the line might have interrupted the day's flow of freights. Perhaps I just had the bad luck to visit the lookout during a dry spell – but possibly the advertised 70 trains per day have diminished because of the nation's economic woes. In any case, a TV camera on the lookout shack feeds a live, if a bit grainy, 24-hour view of the tracks to all the rooms in the hotel for hopeless foamers.

The hotel, the lookout, the train party emporium and a big new railroad-themed events center for weddings and conventions in town are the seeds of what its promoters hope will be a huge new $250 million “Silver Rails Resort,” a kind of Disneyland of railroading boasting an upscale hotel with fine dining, a water park for families, museums devoted to local arts and culture as well as railroading, a wind farm, a spa and spa gardens, and a string of Pullman sleepers converted into premium lodging suites.

Its construction probably will have to wait for better economic times. Right now, however, this lonely little place in the middle of a not very scenic nowhere is well worth a couple of nights' visit for:

  • Rail buffs, railfans, foamers and all those who like to travel by train – La Plata is a short ride from Chicago or Kansas City on one of Amtrak's better long-distance trains.
  • Families. The hotel pool will keep kids happy, and during the summer the hotel mounts a variety of outside activities.
  • Senior citizens seeking to recapture fond memories of the heyday of train travel, or just wanting a nice quiet place to visit for a couple of nights.
  • Couples looking for a romantic weekend's bed-and-breakfast ambience in one of the hotel's theme suites, complete with jacuzzi. (The prices are low compared to those of B&Bs close to Chicago.)
I would not, however, recommend La Plata as a destination for young singles seeking to meet members of the opposite sex as well as to experience exciting night life. Nor would I recommend the place for serious culinary adventurers. There is just one restaurant near the hotel, the Red Rooster, and it specializes in what might be called simple and honest American road food.

I'm planning to go back soon, with the Lady Friend in tow this time.

Tomorrow I’ll post a variety of photos.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

All aboard for La Plata, Missouri

Today at 3:15 p.m. I'm pulling out from Chicago Union Station aboard Amtrak No. 3, the Southwest Chief, for a couple of days of writing and picture-taking at what might appear to the aggressively clueless urban sophisticate to be an obscure spot on the prairie.

For me La Plata, Missouri, has one important attraction: the Depot Inn and Suites, a railroad-themed hotel that has been open for just two years, yet is winning praise for its ambience, amenities and low prices from travelers who aren't necessarily rail buffs. Most of the mini-reviews on are highly laudatory.

For those who live to ride trains and love to watch them thunder by, the hotel lies just a few yards from the restored and picturesque old Santa Fe Railway station at La Plata. Its surroundings also feature an enclosed, heated lookout shack hard by the old AT&SF main line where shutterbugs can photograph upwards of 70 trains each day.

La Plata is just five hours and a sometimes (depending on how far in advance you book) less-than-$100 round-trip coach ticket from Chicago. Train times are civilized, too; departure from Chicago is at 3:15 p.m. and arrival at La Plata is 8:06 p.m. The return trip departs La Plata at 9:57 a.m. and ties up in Chicago at 3:20 p.m.

Veterans of this blog might remember a similar trip I took to the storied Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, Montana, in March, 2007, aboard the Empire Builder. It was fruitful both for writing (see here, here and here) and for photography.

I'll provide a similar illustrated travel dispatch when I return later in the week. Meanwhile, to get into the proper mood for the report, practice making choo-choo noises with your mouth.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Gator bait

Public service of the day: This picture is one of today's offerings on, a cutesy-funny animal-picture blog that is irredeemably puerile, cloying, stupid, ungrammatical and, of course, absolutely irresistible.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ducked a bullet today

Whew. I haven't got a soft jug after all.

No, that's not what you think. To be precise, the No. 4 cylinder in my Cessna's aero engine isn't suffering from low compression.

Aircraft engine health is measured by many things, but the most important is the compression in the cylinders. To test the compressions, a mechanic removes one of the two spark plugs from each cylinder and pumps the cylinder full of compressed air at a pressure of 80 pounds per square inch, then turns the propeller so that the piston is driving against the pressure. Ideally -- but rarely, and usually with a brand new engine -- there is no leakage of air past the piston, resulting in a differential reading of 80/80 psi.

Usually, however, there is a teensy, tiny bit of leakage of air past the piston rings, so that the reading is, say, 78/80 psi. Anything in the 70s is considered fine, but if the reading drops into the 60s, then it's likely that you've got a problem that over time will only get worse. Below 60 means that your engine is losing too much power and it's time to break the piggy bank.

Maybe the piston rings are wearing out slowly and you're facing perhaps the installation of a whole new "jug," or matched cylinder and piston (about $2,500 for each of four jugs in the 100-horsepower engine of a Cessna 150, at right). If the readings are low in two or more cylinders, you might have to replace them all (a "top overhaul" in aviation parlance) -- or, at worst, have a complete major overhaul done on the engine, in which the whole thing is taken apart and anything that's worn beyond limits (almost everything) is replaced. That can cost $12,000 and usually does.

At my airplane's annual inspection in the beginning of September, my No. 4 cylinder compression read 62/80. Gulp. The engine had been run 971 hours since it last had undergone a major overhaul in 1994, or just past half the usual time before overhaul of 1,800 hours. Quite often one or more cylinders on a Continental O-200A engine gets unacceptably soft at the halfway point, and this is when aircraft ownership gets painful.

Fly the plane five or six more hours, Gordon, my mechanic, told me. Then we'll do another differential pressure test and see which way the problem is trending. If the pressure is still "soft," he said, we'll pull the jug and send the cylinder out for honing, or interior polishing, to get rid of any scoring that might be causing loss of pressure. Then we'll put new rings on the piston and reassemble the jug, then reattach it to the engine block. That'll be about $800 or $900, he said with an airy wave.

It might just be that the two piston rings have vibrated their way around the piston so that the gap in each ring lines up perfectly with the other one, yielding a tiny opening for air to leak through. If this is so, running the engine a few hours may cause the rings to rotate some more, closing the opening and returning pressure to where it should be.

I met Gordon at the airport today to run that pressure test.

First, Cylinder No. 1. Pressure: 78/80. Then Cylinder No. 2: 73/80. No. 3: 76/80. And, with a deep breath, Cylinder No. 4. "Look here," Gordon said. I let out my breath and peered at the gauges. 76/80! Yay!

The gaps in the rings had simply lined up at the time of the annual, then returned to their usual staggered positions.

The test cost $25 for Gordon's time. Not $800. Not $2,500. Not $12,000.

And so I shall keep Old N5859E a few more months at least, until the looming depression has either steamrollered my net worth or it hasn't.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Dead parrot lives!

As the stock market heads further and further south, we need something to divert our attention from the shredding of our net worths, and just the thing turned up today on the BBC News web site. According to the dispatch, that wonderful Monty Python sketch about a dead parrot may have originated in a joke book by a 4th century Greek called Philogelos.

In it a man complains that a slave he was sold has died.

"When he was with me, he never did any such thing!" the seller retorts.

Whether Monty Python was very good at stealing material or great humor just repeats itself through the ages (as Milton Berle, a world-class joke thief, would have argued), I don't know. But the story sent me hunting for that parrot sketch, and I found it on YouTube:

And (this is for all my deaf and hearing-impaired brethren and sisteren) would you believe there exists a transcript on, of all places, a Mount Holyoke College web site where a philosophy professor, Eric Barnes, keeps a mini-shrine of old Python routines? Here it is:

Dead Parrot Sketch

The cast:

John Cleese
Michael Palin

The sketch:

A customer enters a pet shop.

Mr. Praline: 'Ello, I wish to register a complaint.

(The owner does not respond.)

Mr. Praline: 'Ello, Miss?

Owner: What do you mean "miss"?

Mr. Praline: I'm sorry, I have a cold. I wish to make a complaint!

Owner: We're closin' for lunch.

Mr. Praline: Never mind that, my lad. I wish to complain about this parrot what I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.

Owner: Oh yes, the, uh, the Norwegian Blue...What's,uh...What's wrong with it?

Mr. Praline: I'll tell you what's wrong with it, my lad. 'E's dead, that's what's wrong with it!

Owner: No, no, 'e's uh,...he's resting.

Mr. Praline: Look, matey, I know a dead parrot when I see one, and I'm looking at one right now.

Owner: No no he's not dead, he's, he's restin'! Remarkable bird, the Norwegian Blue, idn'it, ay? Beautiful plumage!

Mr. Praline: The plumage don't enter into it. It's stone dead.

Owner: Nononono, no, no! 'E's resting!

Mr. Praline: All right then, if he's restin', I'll wake him up! (shouting at the cage) 'Ello, Mister Polly Parrot! I've got a lovely fresh cuttle fish for you if you show...

(owner hits the cage)

Owner: There, he moved!

Mr. Praline: No, he didn't, that was you hitting the cage!

Owner: I never!!

Mr. Praline: Yes, you did!

Owner: I never, never did anything...

Mr. Praline: (yelling and hitting the cage repeatedly) 'ELLO POLLY!!!!! Testing! Testing! Testing! Testing! This is your nine o'clock alarm call!

(Takes parrot out of the cage and thumps its head on the counter. Throws it up in the air and watches it plummet to the floor.)

Mr. Praline: Now that's what I call a dead parrot.

Owner: No, no.....No, 'e's stunned!

Mr. Praline: STUNNED?!?

Owner: Yeah! You stunned him, just as he was wakin' up! Norwegian Blues stun easily, major.

Mr. Praline: look, mate, I've definitely 'ad enough of this. That parrot is definitely deceased, and when I purchased it not 'alf an hour ago, you assured me that its total lack of movement was due to it bein' tired and shagged out following a prolonged squawk.

Owner: Well, he's...he's, ah...probably pining for the fjords.

Mr. Praline: PININ' for the FJORDS?!?!?!? What kind of talk is that?, look, why did he fall flat on his back the moment I got 'im home?

Owner: The Norwegian Blue prefers keepin' on it's back! Remarkable bird, id'nit, squire? Lovely plumage!

Mr. Praline: Look, I took the liberty of examining that parrot when I got it home, and I discovered the only reason that it had been sitting on its perch in the first place was that it had been NAILED there.


Owner: Well, o'course it was nailed there! If I hadn't nailed that bird down, it would have nuzzled up to those bars, bent 'em apart with its beak, and VOOM! Feeweeweewee!

Mr. Praline: "VOOM"?!? Mate, this bird wouldn't "voom" if you put four million volts through it! 'E's bleedin' demised!

Owner: No no! 'E's pining!

Mr. Praline: 'E's not pinin'! 'E's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed 'im to the perch 'e'd be pushing up the daisies! 'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig! 'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisibile!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!


Owner: Well, I'd better replace it, then. (he takes a quick peek behind the counter) Sorry squire, I've had a look 'round the back of the shop, and uh, we're right out of parrots.

Mr. Praline: I see. I see, I get the picture.

Owner: I got a slug.


Mr. Praline: Pray, does it talk?

Owner: Nnnnot really.


Owner: N-no, I guess not. (gets ashamed, looks at his feet)

Mr. Praline: Well.


Owner: (quietly) D'you.... d'you want to come back to my place?

Mr. Praline: (looks around) Yeah, all right, sure.

(Palin and Cleese repeated this sketch many, many times throughout the life of Python, and it's possible that the video and the transcript may differ in some respects.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Give us this day our daily fix

Having resolved a few days ago not to blog again about politics (I didn't say "ever again," did I?), I am suffering terribly from withdrawal pains.

It is not so much that my guy won and the other guy lost. The thing of it (as people used to say) is that American politics in the last year has become downright fresh and interesting, and we are still taking its measure. Old loyalties have become realigned, old balances upended. Moderate Republicans are gone. White guys no longer call the shots; a coalition of white women and minorities hold the power. The South has lost its ballot-box clout. For the independent voter, reasoned argument now trumps mindless invective. And so on.

But will the new center-left hold as we plunge deeper and deeper into the slow-motion train wreck of what may yet be a second Great Depression?

It's hard to stay silent on the sidelines. (Just think how those poor K Street commandos feel now that Obama has told them there'll be no lobbying for scraps of that $700 billion largesse.)

I promise that however strained this blog becomes in its effort to provide meaningful content, it will not forsake the vital trivialities of life, and in that spirit here is a video of a singular Nude Cat Descending a Staircase, with apologies to Marcel Duchamp:

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A poem for Armistice Day

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie:
Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

-- Wilfred Owen, posthumously published

"Owen was killed in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant the day after his death. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as the church bells were ringing out in celebration." (Wikipedia)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Awww . . .

Mainly as an experiment, I'm embedding the following YouTube streaming video in this blogpost. Apologies to all my deaf and hearing-impaired brethren for not including closed captions of the audio, but it's kinda hard for me to do that without, you know, hearing . . .

The video is of Monifa, a three-week-old pygmy hippo at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia. Just the thing to keep your baby potbellied pig company.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Post-election resolutions

I'm not going to wait for January 1, for with the election it feels like a new year has already started. Hence here are my resolutions for 2009:

1. Work harder on the new novel instead of dipping into it desultorily.

2. See the grandchildren frequently and regularly.

3. Boost my Macbook's RAM from 1 GB to 2 GB. That way I won't have to buy a new computer in order to go faster, even if I could afford a new one, which I can't, not in this economic climate. Two GB of RAM costs less than $50, shipped.

4. Get off my ass and go out and take more photographs to feed the other blog. The exercise will be good for me.

5. Walk the dog longer each day. It'll be good for him and it'll be good for me.

6. Resume my daily hour-long workouts at the Geezer Club, starting today. (Catching a cold two weeks ago made me backslide.)

7. Fly my airplane at least an hour a week as long as I can afford it, which might not be much longer.

8. Smile and say hello to the sour neighbor up the street every time I pass by. Maybe she'll smile back sometime.

9. Read two books a week instead of just one, exercising that dusty library card.

10. Finish that Windsor armchair kit I bought last summer. It's not that difficult -- it's the careful sanding that's so time-consuming.

11. Take a course in advanced photography or American Sign Language somewhere, just to mix with other people and forestall reclusiveness.

12. Stop blogging about politics, and encourage other bloggers to follow suit.

This seems like a good start. Suggestions? What about you?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Monday morning quarterbacking

Bloggers everywhere are having a high old time dragging out and stomping upon all the failed prognostications of the pundit and politician classes ("He cannot win," Hillary is said to have told Bill Richardson during the primaries, and you know who "he" is).

As a former book review editor, I must say my favorite example of blown soothsaying is Condi vs. Hillary, that absurdity from 2005 by Dick Morris, who, if we are all lucky, will now fade into the mists of discredited history.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Awakening to 'a different country'

So far the most thoughtful op-ed piece in the aftermath of the election is Tom Friedman's in today's New York Times. It ends:

"The Civil War is over. Let reconstruction begin."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The fourth of November, 2008

It is Election Day, which means that starting tomorrow, frequently uninspired bloggers like me are going to have to find other subjects besides politics to fall back upon when we can't think of anything else to talk about.


By the first Tuesday in November in most election years I'm thoroughly sick, like most people, of the length and nastiness of the political process, also known as the politics of personal destruction.

But this year I don't feel that emotion so strongly, despite some truly disgusting mountebankery on the parts of you-know-who.

As the punditocracy has posited, we very likely are experiencing a "defining moment," or sea change in American history. Two years ago who could have imagined a black man seriously competing for the highest office in the land at the same time as two women, one a candidate for president and the other a hopeful for vice president? With a voter turnout of a magnitude rarely (if ever) seen? And all during a global upheaval of financial disaster in the middle of a war?

"Sea change" may be a weak term for what actually is happening. What are the real dimensions of this moment in history? Are they more illusory than real? In that favorite (but often honest) cop-out of the editorial writer, "It remains to be seen."

And what of the near future? Who knows?

But the times have been interesting, and let us hope not in the sense of the old Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times."

And now, to change the subject abruptly, I'll tell you about somebody I'd like to know: Carolyn Chute.

Hmm. She has me thinking about forming the First Porcupine County Volunteer Militia. I could field-general the potluck suppers while the troops swat the black nanohelicopters.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Make that 8 things

Your voting machine could just levitate and float away. (With a nod to Photoshop Disasters)

Captioned radio


No, this isn't a joke, like Playboy for the Blind.

And it isn't the giant forward step of closed captions for streaming news videos that many frustrated deaf and hearing impaired people like me would like to see on the Web. (For an example of captioned streaming video, click here, but if you're a Republican, you'd better have a sense of humor.)

But captioned radio is a step forward.

You've heard about HD digital radio and maybe how it works. Instead of sending out one analog signal, radio stations send out a bundled signal – both analog and digital. Because the signal is digital, textual data such as traffic, stock information and song titles can be sent out as well. HD digital broadcasts are much less staticky, too, with reduced hiss, pops and fades.

It's the textual data stream that will provide real-time captioning of radio broadcasts on HD digital radio receivers equipped with a display screen to show the captions. A few lines of bright text will scroll up on a dark screen in near sync with the spoken audio, hopefully just a couple of seconds behind. In short, a more or less instant transcript.

So far such sets aren't yet on the market, because existing display screens need too much battery power. But the problem's being worked on, and those in the know say new receivers should be available in a couple of years.

Tomorrow night you can see a demonstration of this technology -- on your computer, not your digital radio -- for National Public Radio says it is going to caption its digital election returns broadcast and demonstrate it on the Web.

I haven't yet been able to pin down the exact URL, but with luck the NPR web site will have a link to that on its home page. According to this press release, so will the web site of the Harris Corp., a communications company. [Later Monday: The Harris Corp. PR guy says the home pages of both sites will carry links to the broadcast tomorrow night, presumably when the broadcast goes live. And the NPR PR rep says it'll be on air from 8 pm to 11 pm EST.]

NPR will also broadcast the captioned HD signal to four of its stations (Washington, Denver, Boston, Baltimore), where special receivers will show the captions to private audiences (of local deaf people, I presume).

Let's hope it all works on the Web. Otherwise I'll just watch Election Night on Fox News merely to enjoy the anchors' long faces.

[I don't know how the demonstration worked for others, but it didn't work for me. Not for half an hour did I discover that the scheme was PC-only, sorry Mac owners; thanks, NPR and Harris, for not letting us know. I did use the Windows XP side of my MacBook and got the captions with Windows Media Player, but they were slow and terribly disjointed, as if only half the lines of text made it through. Of course this was an early-days demonstration, but . . .]

Sunday, November 2, 2008


He wouldn't exchange a terrorist fist-bump. His conversation was uncharacteristically wooden. He had no body language to speak of when I ran into him at the tourist-crap shop in Washington's Union Station last week.

"Already voted for you," I said, giving the cold shoulder to his rigid and unbending rival standing on the other side of the aisle. (Illinois is one of the states with an early voting law, and I had taken advantage of that.)

My man's gaze, however, was direct, unwavering and friendly, and that was good enough for me.